Let’s begin with a question.
In the Venn diagram of political order- an orderly assemblage of activities related to and overlooking the governance of an established society by a group of elected representatives and, culture- social construction of ideas, customs and lifestyles held up in glory through literature, art forms, and architecture; What falls in the intersection?
More importantly, their values. (Brownie points to those who guessed)
This brings us to,
- Fact: Societies are formed by people who share similar values and envision collective goals.
- Inference: Political order in itself is just a machine designed to propagate those values and achieve said goals.
- Conclusion: Architecture is at the service of culture and therefore, politics by virtue of its purpose.
From the ziggurats of Mesopotamia to the pols in Ahmedabad, architecture has inevitably been at the heart of a society. It has reflected and influenced culture since the beginning of time. The raised platforms of a ziggurat demonstrated the new civilization of Mesopotamia with its socio-political order and the Amdavadi pols reflected the human thought of densifying-built fabric to protect from communal riots due to the volatile political landscape of the country at the time.
Great political events of history have also been monumental in shaping the language of the urban fabric of society. After the Partition of Punjab between India and Pakistan in 1947, India-occupied Punjab required a new capital, which led to the idea of Chandigarh. Jawahar Lal Nehru appointed Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier to lead a team of three architects – Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew to design a modernistic city that reflected peace and reconciliation after the events that led to its founding. With its picturesque master-planning and architectural marvels such as the Palace of Assembly and the Palace of Justice, Chandigarh stands today as a symbol of post-independent India, its architectural heritage a pearly embellishment in the tapestry that holds India’s rich political history.
Architecture has thus, molded itself around the myriad of political and cultural changes to best serve its society; It has stood as a relic of massacres and revolutions, a poignant reminder of a time long gone and humanity that survived and plowed ahead.
However, what once represented the pinnacles of society has now become a subjugate of political and social adversity. A neat example would be the Ayodhya Mandir/Masjid Case, which conveniently dishes into, and feeds off of the political agenda of religious majoritarianism, heritage and nationalism in the country over the bigoted demolition of the Babri Masjid. The uprising caused due to the demolition has been politically attuned time and again to benefit the contesting and ruling parties throughout the years.
The redevelopment of Central Vista in New Delhi makes for another interesting example. Understandably put forth to address the infrastructural demands of the growing staff and the questionable structural strength of the existing infrastructure, the project seeks to reimagine the political seat of the nation. However, must one abandon and abolish the remnants of our architectural heritage under the ambition of a new India for it belonged to the British Raj? By overruling many of these structures of national importance with that rhetoric, the current proposal for the redevelopment of the stretch seems to be an attempt to invoke a sense of national integration with legitimacy.
In America, the recent Trumpian executive order titled ‘Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again’ which mandates that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style for any future construction of or renovations to federal buildings”, subtly demonstrates how architectural heritage can be manipulated into a political propaganda. Classical Architecture as a style can very well pronounce on the aesthetic traditions of the founding fathers of America and pay homage to their cultural roots, as the order further reads, but when the sudden urge to dictate the aesthetics of public buildings comes from a government that is building an almost-30ft hostile wall to keep immigrants out of their country, it is not hard to distinguish the political from the cultural. Moreso, Trump’s government contradicts the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” drafted in 1962 with this order, which clearly discourages the discourse of an official federal style. It is interesting to note here that the Nazi propaganda insisted on traditional and classical buildings as well in an act to exemplify their power over minorities, which begs us to question Trump’s majoritarianism agenda and tunnel vision regarding an order that has the potential to snowball into a series of unfortunate events.
It is true that Architecture is at the service of culture and therefore, politics by virtue of its purpose, but Architectural Heritage is representative of the socio-political footprint of humanity at each point in history. For it to be objectified as a political medium to convey underlying propaganda of nationalism and to establish the ruling power as the one and only, is as much damage as razing it down to rubble.
The irony here is that one often fails to recognize the political performance of architecture and regards the industry as one that ‘makes pretty buildings’. It is about time we understand Architecture as a mechanism capable enough to orchestrate revolutions as well because those who have understood it are copiously manipulating it and seemingly orchestrating far more than revolutions.